A House Divided -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2A
Matthew 10:24-39 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household?
26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[a] 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
I prefer preaching a message of reconciliation. I affirm the principle that in Christ, God is reconciling the world to Godself and that we are ministers of that message (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). I want to preach message of shalom (peace). But the Gospel message doesn’t always work that way. Not everyone will agree with the message. Not even everyone in our families. The message Jesus preached can and does divide homes and families and for that matter churches. This is the cost of discipleship.
I have been reading Charles Marsh’s new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- which I highly recommend. Having read widely in Bonhoeffer’s own works, including his meditation on discipleship, it was no revelation to me that Bonhoeffer’s message didn’t sit well with everyone. As Marsh reminds us, Bonhoeffer grew up with a certain sense of loyalty to the German nation. He grew up part of the elite in his nation. But as Hitler rose to power, he began to see things differently. He recognized, before many others, that an inculturated religion, in which nationalism formed the basis of one’s theology, was dangerous. Exchanging a Jewish Jesus for an Aryan one not only redefined the person of Jesus, but it overturned the message. Jesus became a tool of oppression.
How do we remain true to the message, when our natural inclination is to go along to get along? How do we stand firm when such a stand puts us at odds with friends and family? Those of us who have read Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship know how he defined grace as having great cost. Of this passage from Matthew, which is a powerful description of discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes of Jesus’ command not to be afraid of those who oppose the message:
Human beings should not be feared. They cannot do much to the disciples of Jesus. Their power stops with the disciples’ physical death. The disciples are to overcome fear of death with fear of God. Disciples are in danger, not from human judgment, but from God’s judgment, not from the decay of their bodies, but from the eternal decay of their bodies and souls. Anyone who is still afraid of people is not afraid of God. Anyone who fears God is no longer afraid of people. Daily reminders of this statement are valuable for preachers of the Gospel. (Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), 196).
For Bonhoeffer, and his students at Finkenwalde, the Confessing Church seminary that he directed, the future was uncertain. An evil force was taking control of the nation. To stand against Hitler and his minions could lead to imprisonment and even death. Besides this, there was this feeling of loyalty to nation, to family, to land, that continued to grip the hearts and minds of even those who recognized that Hitler and the Nazi regime was evil. It’s hard to stand against your nation and your family.
To be a disciple has always been difficult. We have found ways to make it easier. Christendom has helped in this way. But Christendom is dying, if not already dead. The danger, of course, is knowing when the divisiveness of the message is due to its connection to Jesus or when it is connected to human inclinations.
Jesus says here that a disciple isn’t above the master. If the master suffers, therefore, so will the students. We, who stand this side of Easter, know that the path that Jesus took provoked not peace, but division. He may not have taken up the sword, but the sword was put to him. He could have walked away. But he didn’t. One of the powerful messages of the film The Last Temptation of Christ is that Jesus could have walked away. The closing scenes of the film focus on Jesus’ vision of what life would be like, if he climbed down from the cross, got married and had a family. That was the last temptation. It was the temptation, however, that Jesus chose to turn aside. He stayed on the cross. He demonstrated that the pathway of discipleship would be costly.
Turning again to Bonhoeffer:
The peace of Jesus Christ is the cross. The cross is God’s sword on this earth. It crates division. The son against the father, the daughter against the mother, the household against its head, and all that for the sake of God’s kingdom and its peace – that is the work of Christ on earth! No wonder the word accuses him, who brought the love God to the people, of hatred toward human beings! Who dares to speak about a father’s love and a mother’s love to a son or daughter in such a way, if not ether the destroyer of all life or the creator f a new life? . . . God’s love for the people brings the cross and discipleship, but these, in turn mean life and resurrection. (Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), p. 197).
It is important to remember that Bonhoeffer wrote this book in a time of extreme danger to humanity. It is a hard word and needs to be taken in context. But still, Jesus’ word is a reminder that discipleship, even though the end is reconciliation, along the way those who embrace the master will face resistance and opposition. Knowing when the cause is the gospel and not our own personality, of course, will be key.
Living as I do in an increasingly polarized nation, where it is difficult to work together to accomplish anything of value for the people, we need to be discerning as to where our call to discipleship leads to division. When division comes, and it will come, may it be for the right reasons. As a late President once said, “a house divided cannot stand.” When Abraham Lincoln gave that speech he had in mind the American reality that the nation was divided by slavery. What is it that the Gospel lays down for us?